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Lightning fever intensifies with every round

If you haven't seen the blue beards and paddle noisemakers yet, get ready. Lightning playoff fever is catching on.

Call it a long time coming or a deserved case of deja vu, fans are finally joining the march toward the Stanley Cup.

"This town is definitely going Lightning crazy,'' said Ty Alday, downing his last beer before heading into Game 3 against the Washington Capitals. "Hopefully, they'll win it again this year.''

Few have forgotten the Lightning's first and only Cup title in 2004. At the Luxury Box bar, employees sport T-shirts saying: "Get Stanley 'cause Lord knows, he could use another tan!''

The bar across from the St. Pete Times Forum opened in October, right after the hockey season began. The timing couldn't have been better. The Lightning haven't reached the third round of the playoffs since its championship win — back when the bar was a Beef 'O' Brady's.

"Business is good. The electricity is amazing,'' said Crystal Davis, who owns the Luxury Box with her husband, Stephen.

Down the street, fans pack Hattrick's — Tampa's unofficial hockey bar — for every game. As the Bolts advance, the crowd multiplies.

"Sales are better this time around, maybe because more people know about us,'' said David Mangione, general manager and partner in Hattrick's, which opened 14 years ago. "Nothing compares to winning the Stanley Cup, but it's very similar. Everybody's really excited.''

Fans seem more devoted than seven years ago, he said, when the team was relatively new and fans still embraced old allegiances.

"You see very few of the opposing teams' jerseys, which is nice,'' Mangione said.

Despite the growing excitement, it still has a ways to go. Scalpers had wads of tickets left for this week's home games. National sales of Lightning jerseys, caps and other merchandise rank 17th in the league so far this year, compared with second after the 2004 Cup win. In the past month, since the playoffs began, sales inched to 16th, according to market tracker SportsONESource. By comparison, the Lightning's playoff competitors, the Capitals and Penguins, rank second and fourth for the year.

Dump some of the blame on the economy. Back in 2004, the housing market ran on all cylinders and more people went to work every day. Fans had extra cash to spend on fun stuff like sporting events.

Fast forward to today. The Bucs can't sell enough tickets to avoid a blackout, and the Rays grumble about low attendance. Two popular bars near the arena, Newk's and the Outpost, have closed. Still, sales of Lightning jerseys and caps have surged at Bucs & Bulls Heaven in Tampa.

"We've noticed a big upturn since they entered the playoffs,'' said owner Jeffrey Neil Fox. "Community pride sets in, and people want to root for the hometown team.''

Longtime fan Chris Cona said people might not have money they once did, but they still have the desire to get the Cup back to Tampa.

"I think the intensity is just as high, but no one wants to jinx it,'' he said. "But, I gotta say, this feels very similar. We've got a hot goalie."

Lightning fever intensifies with every round 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 4:25pm]
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